Blogs > HNN > Neil deMause: Review of Stephen Pimpare's The New Victorian: Poverty, Politics, & Propaganda in Two Gilded Ages (The New Press, 2004)

Nov 29, 2004 3:19 pm

Neil deMause: Review of Stephen Pimpare's The New Victorian: Poverty, Politics, & Propaganda in Two Gilded Ages (The New Press, 2004)

Neil deMause is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based journalist who has covered welfare and poverty issues for a variety of magazines, including In These Times, Extra! and Clamor.

To any casual follower of the national political scene, the "welfare reform" movement of the 1990s seemed to come virtually out of nowhere. One minute, there was Ronald Reagan railing against Cadillac-driving welfare queens, but without any serious notion that he could breach the social safety net that had been in place since the New Deal. The next, Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton were teaming up to repeal Title IV-A of the Social Security Act, and with it the federal entitlement of cash aid to the poor.

But as social welfare historian Stephen Pimpare points out in The New Victorians, welfare reform was anything but unprecedented. It was, in fact, a near-exact parallel of a campaign 120 years earlier to eliminate "outdoor relief," the grants of cash, food and coal put in place after the Panic of 1873 to ease the suffering of the poor. Then as now, the drive to cut off aid was successful; and then as now, as Pimpare documents, the result was not the moral uplift that the reformers had promised, but rather an age of increased suffering.

While it may seem strange to modern eyes, the 1870s drive to eliminate aid to the poor was driven precisely by those whose job it was to provide it. Private charities, generally run by blue-bloods eager to clean up the newly bulging cities (or just their own public images), banded together to form "charity organization societies" in cities across America, Their single-minded goal, as one contemporary wrote, was to provide "charity in its original meaning of 'love,' not charity in its debased meaning of 'alms.'" In the Victorian age as today, this tough love meant convincing government to stop providing food and shelter, in the hope that the resulting deprivation would force the poor to cast off the shackles of dependence. (Progressive-era hero Jacob Riis comes off especially badly here, as a nineteenth-century Giuliani forever calling for a crackdown on panhandling and the elimination of the longstanding practice of providing free beds at police stations.)

The results were uniformly dismal. Far from freeing the poor from their "habits of laziness," as one nineteenth-century charity leader sniffed, the elimination of "out-relief" unleashed a flood of new poverty. Poorhouses remained full, while huge numbers of the infirm, the underage and the unemployable were shunted off to new jails, asylums and orphanages.

Pimpare provides ample evidence of similar results in our modern Victorian age. The modest declines in poverty rates in the late 1990s, he notes, were soon reversed with the economic downturn that followed, and can't be particularly credited to the effects of welfare reform. (Pimpare estimates that as much as half of the drop in poverty during the 1990s was wiped out by the simultaneous impoverishing effects of welfare cuts, though his documentation is frustratingly vague on this point.) And post-reform, those still below the poverty line were left even poorer than they were before, as the familiar tales of soaring attendance at soup kitchens and homeless shelters can attest.

Similarly, even as direct cash aid plummeted in the latter years of the nineteenth century, "indoor relief" - the cost of all those prisons and poorhouses - soared. (New York's annual subsidies to private institutions jumped from under $10,000 in 1850 to $3 million in 1900.) Likewise, the percentage of government welfare spending going as cash aid to recipients has nose-dived in recent years, dropping from 76 percent in 1996 to 33 percent in 2002 - the rest has gone to pay the non-profit and for-profit companies that increasingly oversee such programs as workfare and "fraud detection." Neither generation of reformers saw government as getting out of the poverty business; the thrust of reform, it seemed, was to ensure that the maximum possible expense went to overhead.

The obvious question, then, is why? What force was responsible for launching these two assaults on aid to the poor, in these two disparate eras? In fact, notes Pimpare, the 1870s and the 1990s had much in common: each was a Gilded Age in which the power of corporations and the wealthy reached unprecedented heights. And in both eras, corporations' primary concern was boosting profits by driving down wages - Henry Ford with his notions of paying workers enough to afford his products was still a half-century away in the 1870s. Welfare's effects on the poor can be argued endlessly, but one thing that's indisputable is that having another source of income, however meager, lets people refuse poorly paid or dangerous work. As Pimpare notes, quoting labor expert Jamie Peck: "Workfare is not about creating jobs for people that don't have them; it is about creating workers for jobs that nobody wants."

Both centuries’ wars on poor relief were heavily funded by the business classes -- via the “charity organization societies” then, and through corporate-sponsored conservative think tanks today. (The Heritage Foundation, which spawned welfare-reform guru Robert Rector, came into being in 1973 as a corporate response to Great Society liberalism; the Manhattan Institute, another leader in welfare-repeal ideology, followed five years later.) The ideologues thus set loose preferred, when the poor needed to be addressed at all, to provide them with programs that pushed them into the workforce by any means necessary. Even the earned income tax credit, notes Pimpare, for all its genuine benefits to the working poor, in subsidizing low-wage work serves as a disincentive for employers to pay higher wages.

Pimpare draws fascinating parallels, but as far as explaining causation, it's not an entirely satisfying line of reasoning. Certainly, the business interests that funded a nineteenth-century Children's Aid Society or a twentieth-century Heritage Foundation had their own interests at heart. But does that really explain, say, the obsession with marriage and illegitimacy that underlies the modern charge against welfare (the 1996 Personal Responsibility Act that ended AFDC begins with the assertion that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society")? The ranks of welfare reformers are a mixed bunch, ranging from purge-the-rolls crusaders to moralists who've argued that it's better to keep them in the system, the better to impose marriage classes and other attempts at behavior modification. Clearly there's something more going on here than a mere attempt to manipulate the labor market.

The New Victorians also gives short shrift to an even more pressing question: What brought about the end of the first wave of anti-relief laws, twenty-five years after they'd been put in place? Pimpare implies that once charities realized that denying the poor aid did not, in fact, force them to stop being poor, the reformers themselves had a change of heart. If the charities were really just pawns of the Vanderbilts, though, one wonders why they'd develop hearts at this late stage of the game. The book includes a brief glimpse of the "industrial armies" organized by itinerant workers - in an era when the term "tramps" still had an air of malice in those days - to demand the revival of out-relief, but otherwise there's precious little here in terms of a road map for reforming the reformers.

Where Pimpare is strongest is not at providing overarching explanations, but at giving clues at what we're in for as our new Gilded Age progresses. The New Victorians paints a devastating picture of the effects, both intended and collateral, of moralistic assaults on the poor both then and now. Read, for example, this passage by Pimpare on the bitter consequences of "reform" and try to guess which era it's describing:

When public relief was made unavailable to poor women ... they sought private relief, they established credit accounts with merchants, they borrowed money, they worked more hours or took another job, they gave up their children in hopes of getting them back when they could better afford to keep them, they moved in with friends or family or a mate, they cut back their already threadbare budgets, they sold their furniture, they moved, and they usually managed to survive and to care for their children. They were made not less "dependent" but more dependent on sources of support other than [relief].

In the Victorian age, it took two decades of this before the "reformers" were ready to accept the failure of treating poverty as somewhere between a disease and a moral failing, and re-discover the benefits of aiding the needy by meeting their needs - leading directly to Progressive-era economic reforms and ultimately to FDR's AFDC. One hopes that books like this one will help policymakers learn the lessons of the past before another quarter-century has passed.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 12/1/2004

Interesting review. The points made by both author and reviewer remind us that the best way to end poverty is to creeate lots of stable jobs and accept the somewhat greater rate of inflation that comes in such a setting.